Everything old is new again…
Now that ordinary folk have taken to the streets to protest of this sh*tstorm of bad governance – ever since the Women’s March kicked things off the day after the Inauguration – we should expect to hear the term ‘left wing radical’ with increased frequency in the days ahead.
In its heyday, the Republican think tank echo chamber used to give master classes on how to spin up ‘truth’ with a simple, unified ‘catchphrase-deployment’ regiment. The process began, typically, in the conservative think tanks. A series of talking points would be generated, with specific attention paid to the precise wording and language to be employed, regardless of whatever other language might be included. The key was to always use the exact words decided upon. Once selected, the talking points were disseminated to the RNC to distribute amongst GOP members of congress.
The height of their successes in my observation came first during Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich’s near coup, the heyday of the Contract With America. Recall his unprecedented address to the nation, with his office desk staged to mirror the president’s desk in the Oval Office. Cheeky bastard.
It was also operating at full steam ahead during the build-up to the 2nd Gulf War, George W’s invasion of Iraq. Perhaps not coincidentally, that’s when GOP machine began to fall apart as well, but when it was working, it worked flawlessly.
On and on, the steady drum beat, ever towards war. I remember it distinctly because I was playing close close attention to all the noises coming out of Washington at the time. I’m not a hawk by default, but I certainly saw the logic in going into Afghanistan in pursuit of Bin Laden, particularly after having given the ruling Taliban-led government a deadline to produce him.
Given the monstrous nature of the 9/11 attacks, I was cautiously persuaded and thus supported a continuation of that strategy in re other rogue nations. I remember hearing Somalia mentioned as a possible next target for rooting out vile terrorist organizations holed up within their borders.
Then W announced Iraq, and I did a cartoon doubletake. Aiiyy aiiyy. Wait, what? Iraq?
I had/have very strong reservations about invading sovereign nations as a wholesale policy, even if we don’t much care for them. Sovereignty ought be respected if the term is to have any meaning at all. 9/11, terrorist threats, and Afghanistan? A credible exception under extraordinary circumstances. But, Iraq?
So I listened. I paid attention. And I watched the ‘steady drumbeat to war’ campaign unfold before my eyes.
A catch phrase would be unveiled and boom, at every turn, congressmen, senators, press secretaries, spokespeople… into every camera would speak a member of the GOP dissemination team, using the idential language – identical – until that was the phrase employed. Then the press would pick it up and the echo would thus reverberate.
It wasn’t just the war. The Republicans had excelled at this owning the phrase, defining the terms, the language on a variety of subjects. Death Tax. (Honestly? We’re going to let them get away with calling the estate tax that? Answer: yup.)
There’s a long list. It’s why George Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, was such a revelation and so instrumental in identifying the problem in the first place, and then urging some basic tactical changes.
Before the rise of the conservative think tanks, the GOP was generally better at this kind of branding or labeling than were the democrats. ‘Tax and Spend Liberal’ was a notion deeply imbedding in the nation’s mind, coloring (perjoratively) people’s understanding of the two parties. The GOP had been successful for decades in propelling this narrative that their party was the pro-military, anti-government-spending party of patriots. Successful without any regard to the actual facts about which party spent more, or ran up bigger deficits or debt, or that both parties were filled with patriotic people who supported a strong military and our troops.
Some people will remember the famous slur uttered in a presidential campaign (Dukakis, I believe) that the democratic candidate was a “card-carrying member of the ACLU!” Quel horror! Fewer perhaps would recognize the undercurrent of that ‘accusation,’ that the use of the words ‘card-carrying’ was carefully chosen to refer to the communist party, the very definition of un-American throughout the decades of the Cold War. The slur wasn’t so much the ‘ACLU’ part, so much as the ‘card-carrying’ part.
This is what George Lakoff refers to as ‘framing.’ Choosing the words and framework of the discussion, inviting your opponent into the debate (and further inviting them to use your chosen frame – your words – as the structural confines of the discussion), and then proceed to debate with a three-mile headstart in a four-mile race.
Framing. And once the conservative think tanks set their minds to it, they became the undisputed masters and champions of the art, and refined it to a near-scientific precision.
Thankfully, the GOP monopoly has slipped in the framing war. In part due to greater awareness of tactic by democrats and progressives, and also due to a loss of discipline in execution by the GOP machine. They’re not as unified.
And of course, Trump’s inserting himself into the discussion and essentially hijacking the Republican Party has not surprisingly resulted in a dilution of messaging. Trump has his own ideas about framing, except his efforts are far more vulgar than those generated by the conservative think tanks. Like the reality TV star that he is, Trump’s choice phrases, his rally cries, are crude instruments adopted primarily by the uninformed or ignorant, or by racists who come running with their tongues hanging out every time Trump blows his dog whistles. ‘Extreme vetting. Extreme.’ ‘Radical Islamic Terrorism. (He won’t even say the words!)’ ‘Lock her up!’ ‘Crooked this, low-ebb that, little so-and-so.’ All crude and vulgar and not subject to widespread adoption by the population at large.
The GOP’s one successful recent framing/labeling, calling the Affordable Care Act ‘Obamacare,’ has now come around to bite them on the ass, as thousands of Republican constituents cheer the repealing of Obamacare (that ‘total disaster!’) while simultaneously being thankful for being insured under the ACA. Oops.
That one particularly bugged me, not merely because as a small business owner (and not an employee), I only have health insurance by virtue of the ACA. No, it bugged me because the GOP dubbed the ACA ‘Obamacare’ to purposefully bind the law to the legacy of Barack Obama and all the negative branding associated with his name, and more than that, because it had a racist upside. By dubbing it Obamacare, the GOP could continually give a dog-whistle-like nod to mean, you know, that Black president’s law. Might as well call it Negrocare (or the even less savory variant of same).
And now those chickens have come home to roost. Millions of Republican voters and Trump supporters who are in dire need of the insurance benefits only first available to them courtesy of the ACA have spent the past 6-12 months clamoring for the repeal of Obamacare, unaware of what they’re demanding. When good frames go bad.
In short, the GOP buzz phrase generating/propagating machine has been off the rails a bit of late.
Enter ‘Left Wing Radicals.’
Watch for it. Never mind the actual makeup of the protest crowds since the Innauguration – not principally (nor even marginally) comprised of privileged college kids and dope-smoking, acid dropping drop outs, but rather mothers, sisters, working folk, grandparents, attorneys, schoolteachers, parents – by all measures solid citizens by such standards as people are measured. That won’t matter. They’re going to be labeled left wing radical protesters.
Whether the reanimation of this old saw will resonate yet again remains to be seen. Times have changed, as has the populace at large. Protests have subsided somewhat for the time being, although it strikes me this might be only a temporary lull, and they’ll likely spring up anew at the next provocation. Still, it is worth keeping a wary eye out for the return of this partisan slur. Peace, love, dope.
– Atticus West